A view above the planes

Living above a flight path to the local airport was new to us.

Me in my home office

The plane, the plane!

Became a running joke between myself and the rest of the family. I loved the idea of living high up on a mountain. Living in the Caribbean meant a lot of things, this was one of them. Many Caribbean Islands are actually extinct volcanoes.

It was so strange coming from Miami – with no altitude – to the Caribbean where driving up to your home, ears pop. We never had this problem in Miami, my daughter says. Our first car we rented couldn’t get up the driveway to our home. The driveway was at such a steep incline my little four cylinder rent a car couldn’t get all of us up the hill.

Living above airplanes did have its advantages. Neighbors were scarce. We were one of two homes a top this mountain peak. This of course had its disadvantages, like electricity and phone service. We were six months waiting for a phone line to be run to the top of the mountain. Electricity was almost as rare. Many days electricity was out for six or seven hours at a time. Being on an island meant all electricity for the island was created by diesel generators. If the generators broke down, it took hours for a service man to come and fix it.

Another fun fact about living on top a mountain, no phones. Try that with two teenage daughters. One of the things I had to do is drop off the girls downtown before I went to work everyday, so they could use the local coffee shop internet connection. Connections with the rest of the world were strained. We found that having a home in the clouds was a challenge in many ways. Comfort, locale, being away from others and when you want to go grocery shopping, it was a journey you had to prepared for.

Being on an island in the middle of the ocean, seclusion is an unique experience. For some it is a break from the day to day hectic “real” world, for others places like this are resort locations for beach fun and ocean sailing. For me it was all about the seclusion and isolation – to think about my life how it has proceeded and what I was going to do with the rest of it. Being a man of a certain age, this isolation was the point were I decide to finish an already started project. This is how my two cookbooks came so quickly for me after returning to the mainland of the United States.

Living in the clouds – above where planes travel – literally and in my own inner-self’s thoughts made it easy for me to put words to print quickly.  I rewrote my unfinished cookbook – that was sitting on my shelf for the past ten years and renamed it “In the Land of Misfits, Pirates and Cooks” after the people and things that I found while living in the Caribbean.

The stories in the book are all about living and working as a chef in the Caribbean.  You can see this book at:  Amazon –  http://www.amazon.com/Land-Misfits-Pirates-Cooks/dp/0615297781/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1261277848&sr=1-1

You soon be able to buy it at all Barnes and Nobles stores.

The Holidays in the Caribbean

Being in the Caribbean during the holidays is something you have to get use to.

Remembering days of snow covered Fir trees and Aspens were blown away by the 15 mile per hour breeze that brought the eight plus degree humid breeze into my makeshift office.

Since moving to the Caribbean the usual business office setting was replaced with a daily panorama of mountains jutting out of an Aqua sea. I made my office the porch in the back of my Caribbean home. The view was spectacular, the weather warm but never hot enough to miss my air-conditioned office in Miami.

Being in the Caribbean during the Holidays is different. There isn’t a snowflake within 2000 miles. But there is a lot of white stuff. Surf that is. Around this time of year, the winds constantly blow from the north. The waves have nothing slowing their growth for thousands of miles. A serge in waves might have started in the north Atlantic and still rolling until they hit the shallow waters of a Caribbean island.

Kite surfing at this time of year is exciting. Just look a little off-shore and you will see on any Sunday morning the skies filled with wild-eyed boys. These kite boarders participate in many inter-island racing events, traveling in between different islands. The winds are constantly blowing strong out of the north. At this time of the year, surfing is so good they that have an inter-island competition where surfers travel between the different islands to competing with each other for very little in prizes except for the prize of being the best.

Strolling down streets filled with generous amounts of decor is as common as seeing a slow flake. Streets here are mostly barren without the usual look of USA Main Streets. The people here are full of spirit, but there isn’t any giant Xmas displays in their front yards.  Electricity is too expensive for elabroate display of lights and animated figures. Walking the streets face you don’t recognize wish  you “Happy Holidays” and expect the same back. It is uncommon not to be said hello to when you are here on the island. It is insulting to “Islanders” if you don’t say hello. A strange difference to someone coming from a busy metropolitan city where nobody knows one another.

What is the Caribbean all about?

The Caribbean….

To some it is about getting away from it all. Others, it is  just being on a beautiful beach somewhere that is out of the way. Of course there are others that seek out the aqua waters for play and some for relaxation. For me, it was the exotic foods that I have been using in a two decade long cookery quest.

Ever since I can remember, I have been cooking. The culinary style in which I settled into as a young chef  was “Caribb-ican”. This was my culinary style of choice because of the exciting exotic-ness of the food.  I was introduced to the exotics of the Caribbean through some friends living in the Redlands. The Redlands is an area of South Florida that grows all the exotic fruit used by chefs in South Florida.

Just imagine a postcard perfect beach setting – with vibrant shades of pink, yellow, purple, blue and green lining a shoreline just a few feet from away from an aqua sea flaunting so many shades of blue that you can not count them all.  That was my day, everyday, for four years.  In 2005, I moved my family to the British Virgin Islands, 1600 miles away from our home in South Florida. It was decide to follow my need to go to the place where I envisioned myself working with the tropical exotics that were too uncommonly found in South Florida.

Being on the island for a few years, I learned many things. The exotic tropical foods inwhich we had in our own South Florida backyard was just the tips of a very large iceberg. Traveling around the equatorial regions of the Caribbean I found that every Island Nation had it’s own unique “exotic” tropical food. Each Island had mangos, papayas, bananas, pineapple and coconuts commonly but, the others that had unique selections were the ones that got my heart racing.

Mangos are so common, that they made driving on the mountainous roads dangerous. The trees heavy with mango would drop over-ripe fruit in the roads. As these fallen mango rotted on the road, if you hit them with your tire and your car would slide as you try to break. When your are on these mountainous roads, this makes for some strenuous driving near a four or five hundred foot drop off a steep mountainside slope.

Papayas and pineapples were just as plentiful – on every island yet not a danger because the plants didn’t hang over the roadways. I always had many pineapple bushes growing around my home in Tortola. Papaya, a member of the grass family, grows everywhere well. Papaya is almost as popular as mango on most restaurant menus.

Tamarind, a beautiful tree reaching heights of 60 feet are scattered about on many islands. They produce  a brown pod that when peeled, the pulp is used to flavor stocks, make Italian-style ices, candy and other food condiments. Found bottled in many variations but most well known as Worcestershire sauce.  I love to use tamarind in Demi-glace for steaks but, I use it most often for marinades. It has a slight acidic flavor with hints of prune. The combination makes for a great marinade for anything cooked on the grill. Most Caribbean people either slow-cook (in large pots) tougher cuts of meat – all day long or, grill over an open flame. Tamarind is perfect for grilling as it enhances tastes of all grilled foods.

Almost all Caribbean islands have their own unique “tuber” which they use in those large stew pots. Some islands have Name’. Which is a true yam. Name’ sometimes weighs more than 10 pounds is usually found in the markets cut into 2 lb. chunks.  The chunks are cut into more manageable pieces for consumption and stewed along with potted meats. Name’ gives a slightly sweet boiled potato ambiance to any dish. Used the same way we would a boiled potato remembering it’s texture is a little grainer.

Malanga, another unique tuber that people love or hate. Shaggy and ugly looking tuber, it has a likability unlike most other tubers. Smooth almost pasty when boiled and mashed. Kinda soupy-gummy when prepared like mashed Idaho Russets. Use this in boiled stews in large chunks.

The Caribbean is as varied as it is tropical. If you tour the Caribbean, look around you will find something unique no matter where you go.

“In the Land of Misfits, Pirates and Cooks” – Cookbook

In the Land of Misfits, Pirates and Cooks
by Michael Bennett and Eileen Bennett Clark
Published by The Professional Image
ISBN: 978-0615297781

Cover of my cookbook

Mango, crab, papaya, coconut, salmon, avocado and lobster, so many wonderful delights from nature are plentiful in the Caribbean. With nature’s overflowing bounty of tropical fruits, vegetables, fresh seafood and amazing spices it’s no surprise that Chef/Author Michael Bennett has penned a Caribbean-style cookbook from his years of living amongst the Islands.

Chef Bennett’s first book is titled “In the land of Pirates, Misfits and Cooks”, a first-hand “taste of living” in the Caribbean. Bennett has coined the term “Caribb-ican” a cross between Caribbean and American styles of food preparation. To excite one’s palate and to experiment with new methods of cooking and innovative ingredients makes the old new again. Chef Bennett takes the reader on playful culinary journeys throughout the many islands of the Caribbean showing you that with a little ingenuity you can bedazzle your taste buds by being tropically inspired with what Mother Nature has already given us.

The recipes are easy to read, easy to follow and easy to prepare. This book was designed with simplicity in mind to appeal to the most novice of home cooks yet intrigue the experienced cook at the same time. The ingredients are readily available at your local grocery store making this exciting style of cooking accessible at a moment’s notice without much plan other than having the ingredient list with you as you shop. On most pages there are sidebars that highlight cooking tips, preparation tricks and “inside information” as it pertains to healthy eating and variations on the preparation of the dish.

The photos highlight Bennett’s signature style of presentation “food stacking”. Bennett creates towers and rises with his food, Bennett clearly defines “playing with food”, you will never just get food on a plate with Michael Bennett, you will get works of art carefully constructed. This may seem daunting to the average home cook but in true teaching style Chef Bennett explains in detail “how to play with your food”, this alone is worth having the book as you become an honorary Pirate, Misfit and Cook of the Carrib-ican style of cooking.

– Review by Christine Najac

Why does anyone want to live in the Caribbean?

Why does anyone want to live in the Caribbean?

Copyright Chef Michael Bennett’s (2009) new Cookbook, “In the Land of Misfits, Pirates and Cooks”.
You can purchase this book at Amazon.com:

It is the weather, right? Not this guy. I grew up in South Florida and have spent most of my life in tropical climes. I ventured to the Caribbean to learn more about the food.

What lures so many is the stunning beauty of the Caribbean Sea. For centuries these islands have been attracting adventurers from all over the globe. The bygone eras of pirates and even modern day “misfits” made use of these islands as a refuge from persecution and for shelter.

It was a tricky play for me to convince my family to agree to leave the conveniences  of the modern world. Eventually Miami’s gleaming towers of glass and steel were replaced by never ending horizon of blue. The aquatic surrounding our new residence on the Island of Tortola made for glorious panoramas. Daily scenes of mountainous isles jutting out of an azure sea so vivid you would might think this scenescape from our porch was an oversize post card. My family has lived our entire lives in the metropolitan landscapes of Miami and Fort Lauderdale and this new Virgin Island seascape was to me implausible.

In my most recent daydreams of our island bliss, the seascape of blue was enhanced by landscapes of green, yellow, orange and the crimson red of mango, papayas, pineapple and bananas. They line every road, trail and path,  multiplying copiously on every corner of our island. These small rural positioned out-croppings were only dwarfed by my encounters with numerous wild groves.

As I pursued my food gathering more on foot, the high altitudes can really affect you. Did I remember to tell you that these islands are mountainous? Imagine a Caribbean island filled with tropical fruits. A chef’s dream right? I thought so at first, but found out what a chore it was to harvest these wild groves after hiking a combination of summits. The altitude unsettled my self confidence. Being someone that lived his entire life at sea level, this altitude made me confront and rethink my physical condition. Just about to give up this week’s attempt at finding another unusual food for dinner, I happened across a man and his donkey.
It seems that just a decade before the new millennium, this island had no automobiles or modern roads and donkeys were the best means of transportation. The sun weathered old man with limited dentistry encounters, wearing what
might be graciously called a tattered assembly of clothes and no shoes – told me that he climbs these hills daily to harvest provisions and that others have been doing this for years. They gather on Saturday and Sunday at an aged (to
put it in a nice way) open-air market to sell these wild foods and suggested I should check it out.

“It is not the amount of people that have crossed your path

But, how the path was accomplished”.

Being at the market only a few minutes, I could see that this was the meeting place for “ Belongers”. Not so much to sell their harvest but, being there was to be in touch with the community. Belongers are people that have lived on the island for a very long time if not their entire lives. This island’s populace is all about community. It seems as though everyone knows each other here. It is unusual for you to walk any street and not be said hello to. It is exceedingly
strange to me, coming from Miami where nobody knows each other and most people are from someplace else. The feeling of “island” community is strongest at this marketplace. All the gatherers sell their provisions but it really isn’t as
important to make a sale as it is to be with friends. Our time on this world can be assessed by how many people
have crossed your path and affected your life. In the Caribbean it is different. It is not the amount of people that have crossed your path but, how the path was accomplished.
Most Caribbean peoples share the same common ancestry. Discovering the social back drop like at the marketplace is just the tip of a very large iceberg. This entire social unification of islands and its cultures are different but, the same in so many ways. As a rule, Islanders are overflowing with the same atypical allegiance to their individual home island communities. Each Caribbean island has a potpourri of diver gent residents and not everyone originally comes from the same island which they now live. Jamaicans and the people from “Down Island” – those people coming from the Lesser Antilles – made up the diverse populace of my new Caribbean residence. It is inspiring to be apart of a community where everyone has commonalities and feels as though they belong to something greater.

“The peoples of the Caribbean, not only have a different spirit

of life that isn’t seen in America, it is poles apart”.

Just as the United States was for the rest of the world, Tortola and St. Thomas have always been the “melting pot” of the Caribbean. People locally call St. Thomas “little New York”. Being a financial center, second busiest in the Caribbean, people from every “Down” island nation come here to work. Commonalities bring people here but it is their uncommon allegiance to their home island that keeps them independently uplifted. People from “down island” always chatter on about the natural beauty or the cultural advances of their homeland. People from Dominique always say it is the most beautiful place in the world, with their rainforest and crystal clear rivers. Fishing is exceptionally popular and is their most valued industry. Meanwhile, other down-islanders brag about their homeland in the cultural aspects. The Trini’s are always yakking on about Carnival. If anyone knows anything about Carnival in Trinadad, they don’t try to compare their island’s festival to that of Trinadad’s because Trinadad’s is so immense.
The people of Jamaica are always talking about how beautifully rich their homeland is in natural attractions and their culinary culture. You can’t travel across the Caribbean without running into a Jamaican “Jerk-Shak” themed restaurant. Jerk shaks are so popular, you would think that every Island has the same Jamaican chefs.
Copyright Michael Bennett, 2009

Only in the Caribbean

Only in the Caribbean you have to worry about

sharing your parking space with goats.

your neighboors in St. Thomas

I the morning and all throughout the day you hear them. Roosters, everywhere! Chicken, goats and sometimes a cow or two. Everywhere you go, on any island, there are F & %_ kin’ chickens! Everywhere, wild chickens. All the time I spent living there, not hearing a chicken was an unusual day.

It is crazy, you have to be careful when you drive the roads.  One day a SUV was in front of me about 40 years or so. We were coming around a bend and there was a heard of goats walking on the side of the road. I slowed just in time. The goats decide at the exact time the SUV was getting there-to run across the road. It is funny, once one goat does something, all the goats have to follow, even if it means getting wacked by a car.

Well to make a long story short, one unfortunate goat actually got hit by the SUV as it continued along, not being able to stop fast enough. Being behind and watching the whole thing, the goat ducted a little before being hit, as the SUV passes over the goat, as the goat is rolling and bouncing up and down inbetween the road and the undercarriage of the SUV.

To my amazement, the SUV finally dislodges the goat from the rear of the vehicle, and the goat gets up, shakes off the incident like a linebacker shaking off the block from a small wide-receiver, and walks off to join the other goats on the other side of the road.

Through this whole surreal incident, the other goats in the herd are still running across the road, one by one, as they watch their brother get smacked. I guess they are saying better you than me Kid-O !